Christmas Mountain U.S.A.

Festivals, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on November 23, 2011
Bryan Kelsen Christmas Mountain U.S.A. in Salida, Colo.

Steve Borbas, 66, stands in the dark on Tenderfoot Mountain, waiting to light up a Christmas tradition that he and other volunteers have prepared for weeks and maintained for decades in Salida, Colo. (pop. 5,236).

On the Friday evening after Thanksgiving Day, a crowd of spectators gathers in downtown Salida to watch the city’s annual Christmas parade, capped off by a visit from Santa Claus and the illumination of Tenderfoot Mountain for the holidays.

Arriving on a fire truck, Santa waves his arm to lead the crowd in counting, “One, two, three!” while Borbas listens in by cell phone.

As Borbas flips the switch, the mountain glows with red, orange and white lights outlining a 750-foot-tall Christmas tree above the town. Complete with illuminated ornaments, garlands and a treetop star, Tenderfoot Mountain is transformed into Christmas Mountain U.S.A. while local firefighters launch fireworks that explode in the sky.

“This mountain is the heart of Salida,” says Felicia McQueen, huddling on the sidewalk with her daughter, Jordan, 4, during last year’s lighting ceremony. “This is something this town looks forward to every year. It’s a symbol of what Salida is.”

Old West meets New West in Salida, where the town’s Victorian-era buildings recall its 19th-century mining days and a thriving arts community dots the downtown with galleries. Running alongside, the Arkansas River is a playground for anglers, kayakers and rafters. Fifteen nearby peaks top 14,000 feet, drawing hikers and adventurers during all seasons.

Most of the year, Tenderfoot Mountain is adorned with a giant lighted “S” for Salida, and a large red heart, a nod to the town’s nickname “Heart of the Rockies.” Come Christmastime, however, those symbols share the hillside with thousands of festive lights in the shape of what locals call the world’s largest Christmas tree.

The holiday tradition began in 1989 when electric contractor Chris Schirmer enlisted his crew to decorate the mountain with 220 colored floodlights powered by 22,000 watts of electricity. However, the effect-which looked fabulous from overhead but like a bunch of big light bulbs from the town-wasn’t quite what he’d hoped for.

“I’m not one to say die,” says Schirmer, 61, who returned to the drawing board and devised another plan.

The next year, surveyors sketched a mountain-size tree, and volunteers strung extension cords and Christmas lights in accordance with their specifications. When the lights came on, Christmas Mountain was a shining success-and a tradition that townspeople have embraced ever since.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” Schirmer says. “It’s really cool that it’s been loved so well through the years.”

Weeks before the holiday lighting ceremony, Borbas and about 20 other volunteers string 4,500 bulbs in a mile-long strand that zigzags the mountainside. Another dozen volunteers take them down six weeks later.

“I really enjoy the spirit of it and of all our volunteers,” says Borbas, a local motel owner who has kept the tradition going, and glowing, for the last 14 years.

Private donations funded the cost of burying a half-mile of wiring and purchasing longer-lasting LED lights. Now when stringing lights, volunteers simply plug them into electrical boxes that dot the mountain. Local real estate agents pay for electricity-$1,200 to light up Christmas Mountain, and another $800 a year to illuminate the “S” and the shape of a heart. Salida Middle School students conduct a penny drive to help out. Local residents chip in with donations and manpower.

The payoff comes each year when Santa arrives, Borbas flips the switch and Christmas Mountain shines over Salida.
“The big thing,” says longtime volunteer Stew Brown, 77, “is seeing the reaction of the town and kids-how proud they are when the lights go on.”